alternative music

Music I got recently

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Live From KCRW

I would have preferred a full concert recording from the Push the Sky Away tour, but this loose and casual 10-song show performed for the KCRW station in Santa Monica is a great live offering. It’s predictably dominated by the Push the Sky Away material, and the rest of the picks match the quiet, meditative mood of that album, bar the closer Jack the Ripper, a throwback to the fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave of old. It wouldn’t be a Bad Seeds gig without The Mercy Seat, their signature showstopper performed here as a stripped-down piano version with all the white-knuckle tension and power of the original.

Gattaca – Original Soundtrack by Michael Nyman

It only took me 20 years but I finally got a copy of one of my favourite film soundtracks. Nyman’s beautiful emotional score suits this underrated sci-fi drama perfectly and stands up on its own as a classical piece of music. It’s on the sombre side and requires the right mood to listen to from start to finish, but its finest moments, especially The Departure, never fail to move me.

Feist – Pleasure

I’ve been a long-time fan of Feist, which is why I have stuck with this album for as long as I have. I probably miss out on a great deal of music that I could get into if I gave it more chance, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to treat every artist with patience. Pleasure is easily Feist’s least immediate and poppy record and there are no breakout quirky hits like 1234; the songs are sparse, pared back and lacking in obvious hooks. The opener Pleasure, with its weird dissonant bluesy riff, is probably the closest thing to catchy. The rest of the songs take a while to unlock, but prove to be worth the effort in the end.

Triple J’s Hottest 100 – Volume 24

I got into the habit of buying these compilations of Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 countdown every year. They make for a fun time capsule of what the radio station’s musical landscape was like in a given year (in retrospect, it’s a bit sad to trace the decline of rock music’s presence from the good old times when the early 00s bands like Franz Ferdinand ruled the list). This year it’s another solid 40-track, 2-CD compilation including songs by Flume, the xx, Starboy among others.

Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room

Laura Mvula’s rich soul voice would put her into the retro territory occupied by Adele and Amy Winehouse, but in truth she’s a lot more off-centre and idiosyncratic. The oddness reaches new heights on her second album, which is often gorgeous-sounding yet full of strange orchestrations and meandering melodies that have zero interest in becoming normal pop songs. Like Feist’s latest, it also requires some patient listening and letting the songs unfold and sink in. The only misstep for me is Nan, a recording of Mvula’s conversation with her grandmother; I generally can’t stand this sort of self-indulgent inclusions and they’re best kept on the artists’ private laptops.

D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

It’s a bit hard to describe the style of this Australian muso, whose passport name is Oliver Perry: it’s a vibrant hodge-podge of various sonic elements (even some lush sitar on the album standout Alihukwe), blending into a rather unique and whimsical vision. Keeping it all together is Perry’s warm and likeable vocal presence, which lends the album an endearing childlike quality despite some dark lyrics. Some tracks are stronger than others, but overall it’s an impressive debut.

Music I got recently

The xx – I See You

Like many people, I adored this band’s hushed minimalist debut, but then came the dreaded second-album dilemma: where to go next after you’ve already emerged as a fully formed deal with the sound, image and mood all perfected? More often than not it’s a course of diminishing returns, more of the same but not quite as good. Luckily, on this third album the xx seem to have figured out how to move on by embracing a wider range of influences, samples and vocal loops, and the end result sounds both fresh and unmistakably like the xx. There’s also a greater variety of mood; while it’s not necessarily a “happy” album some songs sound decidedly more optimistic and upbeat. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim may not be great singers in a conventional sense – neither of them has much depth or range – but they know their way around limitations and their vocal interplay still remains enchanting. A couple of songs in the middle of the album sticks closer to the blueprint of the debut, and while they’re fine the best tracks are the ones where the band push themselves.

Seis Cuerdas – Mar Adentro

I rarely ever purchase CDs from the street buskers, but I happened to pass this duo while walking down the Santa Monica promenade in Los Angeles earlier this year, and I found their flamenco guitar music so inspiring and stirring I stuck around to listen and shelled out my last holiday money. That fiery live quality is inevitably dulled on the studio recording, but still it’s an excellent collection of instrumentals. The first track in particular makes me want to grab some castanets and go dancing down the street.

Goldfrapp – Silver Eye

I kinda lost touch with Goldfrapp over the last few years and didn’t think much of the last two albums, but got roped back in with this satisfying comeback. It returns to the electronic dance pop of Supernature, while also referencing their more atmospheric, subdued releases, so it’s basically a combination of everything they do well and there’s something for everyone no matter which Goldfrapp you like best, dreamy and pastoral or dance club and synthy. The opening and standout track, Anymore, with its steady pulsating beat, is vintage buzzing sexy Goldfrapp; while nothing else quite matches it this is a very solid album and Alison’s breathy vocals are fantastic and sensual as always.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Despite being a huge Nick Cave fan, I unconsciously held off listening to this new album knowing the tragedy that had shaped its making, the accidental death of Cave’s teenage son. In hindsight, I think I felt uncomfortable at the idea of getting close to someone else’s raw grief; death has always been a huge theme in Cave’s music but this real-life mourning is something else entirely. As I found out later, the writing and recording for Skeleton Tree had commenced before the incident, and there are no direct references to the loss anywhere on the record. But listening to the album, it’s impossible not to feel its shadow looming over everything like a black cloud, and not see the record as a stark landscape of grief. While harrowing, it’s also a brilliant follow-up to Push the Sky Away, and musically sounds like that album’s darker, more ambient and eerie cousin. Which is just fine by me.

Music I got recently

I should have had this blog years ago, when I was buying up to five albums a week sometimes and my CD collection ballooned over 900. Since then, I cut down my collection by about a third, and got much more selective about my purchases. By a coincidence, the last two I got are both by Australian artists.

chet-faker-album-coverChet Faker – Built on Glass

Yeah late to the party with this one, probably because it took me a while to warm up to the songs I heard played on Triple J. When Talk is Cheap was voted top track in the Hottest 100 poll, I went, ok it’s nice and all, but no. 1? Since then though its saxophone and sexy groove really wormed its way into my brain, especially when I decided that I could use it some day to create a neat bellydance routine. This song and Gold are the clear individual standouts and nothing else quite matches them, but still, Chet Faker’s R&B/soul-influenced electronica makes for a great chillout album.

SIJS-2400Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Give me all your money,
And I’ll make some origami honey

Usually I’m very much a music-over-lyrics kinda girl – if the music doesn’t grab me I can’t get into an artist/band no matter how great their lyrics are; and on the other hand, I can put up with any amount of terrible lyrics if I’m really into the music. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell you what the lyrics for my favourite songs actually are. So this album, which I really love by the way, is an odd one out for me. Not to say that it’s poor music-wise, but the music here is more like a bedrock for Barnett to layer her vocals and lyrics over, rather than being remarkable in itself. The real attraction here is a strong sense of a unique personality, charmingly offbeat vocal delivery (deadpan, sorta-singing-sorta-speaking) and truly remarkable lyrics: wordy, witty, sometimes rambling, sometimes with a more clear narrative, always packed with sharply observed everyday details. Actually, though they don’t sound much alike, this album’s appeal to me is probably not too dissimilar to that of Liz Phair’s Exile to Guyville.

Living in Melbourne, it feels even more special to listen to the songs that are based on your home city. My favourite of the lot is probably Depreston, a melancholic and poignant number about house-hunting in Preston and coming across the previous owner’s possessions. Another favourite is Pedestrian at Best, the rockiest track on the album with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and dry humour. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here, once her style doesn’t have the advantage of freshness; sometimes when an artist appears to be so fully formed on their debut album everything else they do afterwards ends up as diminishing returns. Hopefully she avoids it.